North Korea’s Reassembly Activity at the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility

The week since the collapse of the Hanoi summit has been dominated by news that North Korea is reassembling the facilities it had made progress toward disassembling at the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) satellite launch facility after the first Kim-Trump summit at Singapore. On top of that news came of transport service vehicles being seen operating at the Sanumdong Missile/Rocket Research and Development Facility where North Korea manufactures its long range missiles and space launch vehicles.

At Sohae what is at issue is reassembly activity at the satellite launch pad and the engine test stand. The latter has been used for static hot testing large liquid propelled engines, including the indigenously developed booster engine of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs.

What does this all mean?

We first heard of this courtesy of South Korean media reports of an intelligence assessment made for a parliamentary intelligence committee by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. That report focused on reassembly activity at the launch pad, which mostly was said to consist of reassembly of the roof and door of the rail mounted transfer facility. That is where a space launch vehicle is finally, vertically, assembled and transferred to the launch tower.

Subsequent analysis of public satellite imagery by US analysts confirmed this, but they also showed reassembly activity at the engine test stand as well. 38North has the best analysis here and here. That analysis shows that the rail transfer building has been reassembled as of March 06 and moved adjacent to the main processing building. Beyond Parallel at CSIS had a briefer, high image to text ratio, large font analysis here. That was doubtless Victor Cha continuing his conversation with Donald Trump, given Cha’s recent admission that Beyond Parallel’s report on the Sakkanmol missile operating base came with big pics and little text because Donald Trump doesn’t read. Both he and John Bolton have continued their peace scuttling ways from the Bush administration.

The satellite imagery shows that North Korea had started reassembly at Sohae just before the Hanoi summit. Just what was and wasn’t started prior to Hanoi isn’t clear to me. Did work commence on both the launch pad and the engine test stand prior to Hanoi or did it commence at one of those prior to Hanoi and if so which?

The western airwaves were naturally full of talk about North Korea resuming ICBM testing, even though the Sohae launch pad has only ever been used for launching space launch vehicles. Then the narrative quickly changed to the tried and tested North Korean satellite launches are thinly disguised ICBM tests. Reports of transport service activity at the Sanumdong Research and Development Facility, where North Korea has manufactured both long range missiles and Unha space launch vehicles as noted, added further grist to the mill. That activity was instantly interpreted as being ICBM related, however Sanumdong’s role in Pyongyang’s space programme was largely ignored. Furthermore, North Korea’s space launch vehicles do not share a design heritage with North Korea’s long range missiles. The Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and Hwasong-15 ballistic missiles are not related to the Unha space launch vehicles. The latter have been based on Scud/Nodong technology hence the old Taepodong 1 and 2 rockets.

In late 2017 a Russian space analyst, Khrustalev Vladimir, wrote a brief write up of a visit he paid to North Korea’s space agency. Vladimir stated that North Korea was ready to launch two new satellites. One a 100kg plus Earth remote exploration satellite to low earth orbit, the other a 1000kg plus (likely up to 1500kg) communication satellite to geostationary orbit. North Korea was founded on the 9th of September 1948, which meant North Korea marked its 70th birthday on September 9, 2018. It was argued by some, certainly by me, at the time of the Vladimir report that North Korea might mark the occasion through a space launch (or two). However, inter-Korean détente and the subsequent denuclearisation talks with the US gave North Korea an incentive to put any space launch plans on a holding pattern. That suggests North Korea’s space agency was technically capable of launching the satellites mentioned above but was placed on a hold for political reasons.

Perhaps the countdown has now resumed, and Kim has given a go for launch. The LEO satellite, one thinks, would be launched by the Unha-3 space launch vehicle if so. The GTO satellite, however, would require a new more powerful booster rocket. Quite what that would be is not known. It might be, in part, based on the Hwasong-15 ICBM. Reassembly of the engine test stand at Sohae could mean North Korea might test a new large booster engine for a new space launch rocket or a cluster of Hwasong-15 ICBM engines. Perhaps North Korea would limit itself to launching the LEO payload from an Unha-3. We simply do not have enough information to be certain. We also don’t really know whether North Korea has really set in motion activity related to a coming satellite launch either for that matter.

We must wait and see.

At Singapore, as I have often argued, North Korea agreed, in part, to disassemble the engine test stand at Sohae in exchange for a declaration on the end of the Korean War (as opposed to a formal peace treaty). The United States has never delivered on its end of that bargain. North Korea after Singapore began to disassemble the engine test facility making rapid and significant progress, however it halted that activity in August 2018. In addition to beginning to disassemble the engine test stand North Korea also took off the roof and door from the rail transfer facility at the launch pad. That was largely interpreted as a transparency measure helping to foreclose the usual space launch is a disguised ICBM test argument being made in the event of a future satellite launch. Assuming that to be so, and if reassembly of the engine test stand and the rail mounted transfer facility both began prior to Hanoi, that suggests an end of war declaration was not on the Hanoi agenda. We know that Hanoi was dominated by Yongbyon and sanctions relief.

As a side note, you will notice that the South Korean intelligence assessment reportedly concluded that the Yongbyon plutonium production reactor stopped operations in December 2018. That’s consistent with a recent IAEA conclusion as well, and doubtless Hanoi related.

We might have ourselves here a bit of the usual tit-for-tat, North Korea’s long standing negotiating strategy. No declaration on the end of the Korean War, so Sohae is back in business. If so notice that would follow because Washington is seen by Pyongyang as not fulfilling its end of the Singapore bargain. There’s a sense in which this story transcends Sohae, for it reinforces the incentive for North Korea to hedge on any of its denuclearisation activities. That hedging would be, indeed is, reflected by their reversible nature. It would be irrational for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile related facilities, in whole or in part, in an irreversible fashion and Singapore and Hanoi have only served to reinforce this point upon Pyongyang. North Korea won’t be making a fell swoop disarmament deal with the United States that is complete and reversible.

Should North Korea conduct a space launch from Sohae it would be widely reported as being “provocative” and a “signal” to Donald Trump. I would suggest that it would be more about North Korea going ahead with its preplanned space programme. It would be, more than anything else, Pyongyang not allowing progress on its space objectives being made contingent upon the whims of Donald Trump. But a North Korean space launch would be politically interesting given the way the Trump administration has responded to Iran’s space launch programme, seeing it also in terms of thinly disguised ICBM testing.

Hopefully, we do not end up finding ourselves stepping on the first rung of the escalation ladder. As I have argued here a while back now, both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump appear to hold dangerous views. Kim seems to think his hydrogen bomb and his Hwasong-15 brought Trump to Singapore. For his part Trump seems to think his rendition of the madman theory of Richard Nixon brought Kim to Singapore. I believe both views to be false, but it’s not hard to see how, after Hanoi, they can easily become dangerous ones if acted upon.

The other interesting thing about these post Hanoi developments is the way they have reignited the supposition that North Korea does not have an ICBM able to reliably strike the continental United States with a thermonuclear warhead. A space launch could be a disguised ICBM test, we are told, especially if it employs a new more powerful space launch vehicle which could test some of the components of the Hwasong-15 ICBM for reliability purposes or for further ICBM development. What we have here is a further example of how the world’s preeminent power has not accepted the new reality of the nuclear age. The United States does not accept that a poor, hungry, heavily sanctioned country with a low per capita GDP can strike its urban-industrial centres with the hydrogen bomb through dint of its own efforts.

In the wake of the Hanoi fizzle many went back to Kim Jong-un’s 2019 new year address to find clues as to what comes next. The impulse was understandable, but the wrong address was chosen. By looking to the 2019 address we look to see what Kim might do next. Far better to take on board Kim’s 2018 new year address, which gives us a clue as to what we should do next. Kim there stated of the US that “the whole of its mainland is within the range of our nuclear strike and the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time; the United States needs to be clearly aware that this is not merely a threat but a reality.”

The rational thing for us is to accept that reality and strike the best deal available, even if its short of disarmament. The irrational thing is to ignore reality through spinning fairy tales that fool only us. We want to be fooled because we want to compel, and be seen to compel, a small power to bend to our will. The old reality, of might makes right, we find both familiar and comforting.

Update: We should not forget, as I did above, that there has been a kind of Korean space race between North and South Korea. The latter on November 28 2018, flight tested its indigenously developed KSLV-2 rocket or space launch vehicle. That flight test employed one KRE-075 liquid propelled booster engine, which has a thrust of 75 tonnes. South Korea plans to launch two satellites in 2021 using the KSLV-2 rocket one of those being a 1500kg satellite to be placed into a low earth orbit. The KSLV-2, when fully operational, will employ a cluster of four KRE-075 engines each with a 75 tonne thrust for the first or booster stage. North Korea’s Hwasong-15 ICBM employs a two cluster Pektusan engine with a total thrust of approximately 80 tonnes. When a single chamber Pektusan engine was used to boost the Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile during its flight testing in 2017 acceleration analysis showed that configuration had a thrust of about 40 tonnes. When the Pektusan engine was static tested (in single chamber form) KCNA stated that it was for Pyongyang’s space programme and had a thrust of 80 tonnes.  As noted above North Korea has had plans to launch a 1000kg plus communication satellite to geostationary orbit, which requires an SLV more powerful than the Unha-3. Th analogy with North Korea and early Chinese SLVs is why I had a reference above to a possible four engine cluster.

Anyway, my main point here is this. The KSLV-2 might be partly related to the performance characteristics that North Korea may be seeking from a new SLV. But even more importantly, North Korea has been in a space race with South Korea and in 2021 Seoul has plans for a big splash in space. Analysis of satellite imagery seems to show there has been, apparently related, activity at Sohae and Sanumdong from February 2019. As noted South Korea flight tested the KSLV-2 in November 2018. By about December 2018 it was clear that the denuclearisation talks with the United States were in troubled waters, which is one of the reasons why the Hanoi summit was called in the first place. Hanoi was Yongbyon focused, and the US still had not meet its Singapore obligation to sign up to a declaration on the end of the Korean War in exchange for the engine test facility at Sohae. The Hanoi summit, as we know, was a fizzle. Why, then, would North Korea give South Korea a free ride in space, knowing that Pyongyang is in the lead as it were, if the main political reason for it doing so, the denuclearisation talks with Washington, were basically going nowhere?

One should be mindful of the Korean space race when thinking about North Korea’s activities at Sohae and Sanumdong. North Korea has preprogrammed space plans which it has placed on hold for political reasons. The longer the hold the more likely the next Korean advance in space comes from the South rather than the North. An indefinite hold that has North Korea’s space programme dance to the tunes of Donald Trump would thereby be irrational.